Feleipe Franks’ career at Florida was a roller-coaster ride. There were the highs of the Hail Mary to defeat Tennessee in 2017, the win over LSU in 2018 and his Most Valuable Player performance in the 2018 Peach Bowl rout of Michigan. Then there were the lows: going 4-7 in 2017, getting benched against Missouri in 2018, shushing the crowd the following week, and turning it over three times in the 2019 season opener against Miami.
The UF record books will remember him fondly. He ranks 11th in program history with 38 career touchdown passes, and he has the second-lowest interception percentage in school history.
How will Gators fans remember him? Well, only time will tell. What is for certain, however, is that his former teammates and coaches have great admiration and respect for him.
“I think before we got here and everything, he had a rough go of it with the fan base, with everything going on,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “He came in and took a four-win team and led them to a New Year’s Six bowl victory and a top-10 finish, and he helped the turnaround of the program to make that happen. I think it’s a foundation of a guy that came in and took a bad situation and turned it into a really good one and helped build a foundation and put Florida back to where everyone expects Florida to be as a top-10, national program.”
His top backup, friend, and successor, Kyle Trask, credits Franks for helping him grow as a player during their four seasons together.
“I think we had a very beneficial relationship while we were both playing here because we were great friends off the field, but at the same time, we were both competitors, and we competed with each other every day, and I think we made each other better in the end,” Trask said.
After suffering a gruesome leg injury against Kentucky last season and watching Trask blossom into one of the top quarterbacks in the country, Franks decided to transfer to a school where he would be almost guaranteed the starting job for his final year of eligibility. He eventually settled on Arkansas.
His teammates remember him as the model teammate and friend who got along with everybody on the team. Still, don’t mistake that friendliness for a lack of competitive fire. He takes football very seriously, and running back Malik Davis shared a story from Franks’ individual meeting with Mullen shortly after Mullen took the UF job late in 2017.
“I just finished my meeting with Coach Mullen, and Feleipe came, and he had a suit on,” Davis said. “I was like, 'Why you got a suit on?' He's like, 'I'm going on a business meeting,' and he was just next with his meeting with Coach Mullen. That was just the type of guy he was – always ready, competitor, great love for the game."
Added center Brett Heggie, one of Franks’ roommates at UF: “One of those guys that wants to work harder than everybody else in the room. And then his preparation, again, was always something that I noticed going into games. He was always watching tape and picking up things about the opponent and things like that, just the true competitor.”
As fate (and the SEC office looking for a juicy matchup) would have it, Arkansas was one of the two new opponents added to the Gators’ schedule when the league went to a 10-game, conference-only slate this season.
“I know Feleipe’s a great competitor,” Mullen said. “He wants to come in here and beat my butt, beat everybody on the team’s butt, and that’s what competitors want to do, and he’s a competitor, so he’s going to want to do it. But it’s not going to change the relationships or how you feel about each other when you’re out there on the field. You get that competitive edge to you that you want to win.
“I’m happy for how it’s working out for him. But I know I want to go compete. I want to beat his butt on Saturday.”
Franks has remained in contact with many of his former teammates and coaches, including Mullen, who texted him a few weeks ago. However, Franks is the enemy this week, and he and his former teammates have engaged in some playful trash talk.
“As competitors, we always compete with each other,” Davis said. “[We’d] argue all day about who is winning sprints, and so when we found out we get to play each other, it's trash-talking, and he knows we're beefing this week until after the game."
Franks has had a nice season for the surprising Razorbacks (3-3), who entered the year with a 19-game conference losing streak. Franks has completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,428 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“A guy that has a high touchdown-to-interception ratio, really strong arm,” Mullen said. “He's a veteran player now, played in the league, so the games and moments aren't too much for him. I know he's playing kind of a newer offense to learn, but when you're an older, veteran guy, I think you understand concepts, you understand coverages, you understand what's going on out there on the field. He's picked it up really fast, and I think he's having a great year. But I wouldn't have expected anything less than that from him.”
UF offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said it’s been a pleasure to watch Franks accomplish everything he set out to do when he decided to transfer.
“He's having a great year,” Johnson said. “Really proud of him. Feleipe is like family to me. I love him to death. So, really excited for him. I know he's probably excited to get back here and get the chance to play in the Swamp. He's done a great job all year long. He's had those guys playing some really good football.”
Banged up Gators
For the first time this season, UF enters a game with serious injury concerns. Tight end Kyle Pitts suffered a concussion on the helmet-to-helmet hit against Georgia and is questionable. Right guard Stewart Reese left the game with a shoulder injury in the third quarter and didn’t return. He’s also questionable to play against Arkansas. Defensive end Jeremiah Moon is doubtful with a foot injury.
While potentially being without their superstar tight end against the conference’s second-ranked passing defense isn’t ideal, the Gators are confident that Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer can pick up the slack. The two combined for four receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown against the Bulldogs.
“I think [Gamble’s] done a great job,” Mullen said. “He’s worked to continue to develop within the program. You see Kyle Pitts, and you know this guy is a special talent. What I always tell players [is] you don’t have to be like him. You just have to be the best you can be, and if you’re focused on your development and working for you to be the best you can be, you’re going to be ready for your moment. I don’t know a year ago that he could have stepped up and performed the way he performed on Saturday.
“When his number was called, he was ready to go in. He comes in right after Kyle gets hurt and scores a touchdown. I think that’s such a huge deal for him, and it’s certainly a confidence-builder for him moving forward.”
Meanwhile, freshman Josh Braun replaced Reese and fared well in the biggest snaps of his brief career. Despite all of the pressure that comes with playing in the second half of an important rivalry game, Braun didn’t seem intimidated or overwhelmed. He was assignment-sound and blew a couple of guys off of the ball.
“He's a very intelligent guy, came in with a great work ethic, has taken advantage of the opportunity of being out there on the field, in practice, and when his number was called, he was ready to go step in the game and play,” Mullen said.
Heggie said it was good for Braun and redshirt freshman Michael Tarquin, who briefly replaced an injured Jean Delance in the second half, to get into a high-level game like that. The way they held their own is a testament to their work ethic and practice habits.
“Everyone takes practice every day seriously,” Heggie said. “We all watch film together, so I knew those guys were going to be prepared if something were to happen. I trusted them when they were in the game for sure.”
Trask credits the way the team practices for the backups stepping in and not missing a beat. They try to give everybody enough reps throughout the week to prepare them all to play.
“Our coaches do a great job of getting everybody reps,” Trask said. “It’s not just the starters getting reps. The backups are getting almost the same amount of reps as the starters, so if there ever is someone that goes down, the next man up does a pretty good job of producing. I think that just shows how well our coaches work and how much they know what they’re doing.”
Georgia win not the finish line
The situation the Gators find themselves in feels ripe for an upset loss. They’re coming off of a physical, hard-fought win over their biggest rival that put them in outstanding position to win the division title and now return home to face a team that they should beat soundly on paper. It’s human nature to turn the Georgia win into a weeklong celebration and sleep-walk into the Swamp on Saturday night.
Mullen said he had a discussion with his team about moving on from the Georgia win and focusing on the Razorbacks. Championship teams don’t celebrate big wins for very long.
“For our players, I think they have to understand [that] we didn’t come into the season and our goal on the season was to just beat Georgia,” Mullen said. “That wasn’t like the, ‘Hey, what do you guys want to accomplish this year?’ That wasn’t part of it. I think our guys wanted to be in a position to compete for a championship, and we’re still in that position. But there’s a lot of work to do if we want to make that happen.
“Any great team is going to get better from one week to the next. If we don’t come out and have a better practice today than we did last Monday preparing for Georgia; if we don’t come out and play harder than we did against Georgia; if we don’t come out or are not more efficient and executing at a higher level on offense and if we don’t have 11 guys running to the ball and tackling and making sure we’re sound, limiting our mistakes, then we shouldn’t expect to win.”
Especially not against this team. Arkansas defeated Tennessee last week and nearly took down Auburn in early October. They’ve enjoyed a remarkable turnaround under first-year coach Sam Pittman. Pittman tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday and won’t be on the sideline on Saturday unless his initial result proves to be a false positive. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the former head coach at Missouri, will be their interim head coach. Mullen expects to see a well-coached, hard-playing team regardless of who’s calling the shots.
“[Pittman’s] got them playing hard, believing,” Mullen said. “They have some really good defensive guys. They play to the strength of their secondary, and they’re one of the top interception teams in the nation. They’re physical, good tacklers. Linebackers are two excellent players, excellent, excellent football players. And then they have disruptive defensive linemen upfront on the defensive side of the ball.
“One of the keys is creating a winning mindset, and if you see this year, they play with that winning mindset and been really successful.”
The Gators beat Georgia with explosive passing plays and quick scores. Johnson said the strategy might look a little different this Saturday against an Arkansas defense that leads the league in interceptions.
“They see the ball in front of them, and they break, and they tackle well,” Johnson said. “We have to do a good job of creating situations where we get our playmakers in space and just be really consistent in our execution. They’ve had some games where they’ve gotten multiple turnovers. We’ve got to do a great job protecting the football and be ready to take what the defense gives us. If they stay over top you’ve got to be ready to check the ball down and drive it. We may have to go on some longer drives, but you just got to play the game the right way. Trust your reads, and trust your execution.”